A person sitting at a table using a laptop.

Student Guide: The College Essay and ChatGPT

The recent launch of ChatGPT, a chatbot that runs on natural language processing and produces coherent written responses to user prompts, has raised many questions, not least about the future of student writing. Ask ChatGPT to write an essay, and within seconds (using algorithms to determine the most relevant internet data) it generates a seemingly genuine essay that is not discoverable by search engines and can pass plagiarism detection tests.

In this blog, I’d like to focus on two basic questions: How are students using this new technology for their college applications? And how will it change expectations for the college essay?

How Students Use ChatGPT

As a recent New York Times survey of high school students revealed, students have a diversity of opinions about ChatGPT and how they envision interacting with this new technology in their education (if at all). Some consider it a threat to their own distinctive voice; some embrace it as part of a new paradigm for writing; others refuse to try it. Whether intrigued, resigned, indifferent, or reserving judgment, students should be cognizant of the fact that, even if they don’t use ChatGPT themselves, others’ use of this new technology can impact their own writing.

Consider two students, both consulting ChatGPT as they write their college supplemental essays. Let’s say they both have the same academic interest in biochemistry and French studies. To answer the University of Pennsylvania’s supplemental question #3 from 2022-23, each student asks ChatGPT to write a 250-word essay on how he plans to explore his academic and intellectual interests at the University of Pennsylvania. ChatGPT’s 4-paragraph essay (shown below) clocks in at 278 words, but otherwise it provides–as much as possible–a fluent answer to the students’ request.

A page of an article with a picture of a person.

Student #1 likes this draft, and so, after changing the phrasing and word order slightly, inserting one or two specific class titles, adding a detail about visiting the campus, and cutting it down to 250 words, he submits it as his essay.

Let’s imagine this is what his revised first paragraph looks like:

I am excited to explore my academic and intellectual interests in biochemistry
and French studies as a student at the University of Pennsylvania. By pursuing both areas of study, I hope to deepen my critical thinking, problem solving skills, and appreciation for complexity.

Student #1 feels pretty good about himself. By not simply copying ChatGPT’s response word for word, he has made it his own. Hasn’t he?

Unfortunately, there are two major problems with Student #1’s use of ChatGPT.

1)The essay will probably be flagged by an Artificial Intelligence Detector as “likely A.I. generated.”
2)More importantly, the essay fails at its fundamental task of providing significant details about him.

Even though Student #1’s essay is unlikely to show up in a plagiarism detection test, it will almost certainly be flagged by an A.I. Detector. A.I. Detectors work on the same basic principle as ChatGPT insofar as they analyze the key words that are most likely to occur based on sentence patterns. So, by keeping many of the phrases that were written by ChatGPT (“critical thinking,” “problem-solving,” and “appreciation for complexity,”) the student has made it easy for an A.I. Detector to flag his essay.

Because college admission practices vary from one school to another, it is difficult to say with certainty that student’s college essays will be run through an A.I. Detector. But in January 2023, the makers of ChatGPT released the AI Text Classifier to help identify writing generated by artificial intelligence. Similarly, in February 2023, TurnItIn, a company that has specialized in plagiarism detection for twenty years, released its own A.I. detection program. Many other programs are out there, including GLTR and Originality, with more in development. As a result, it seems safe to assume that many colleges and universities will use this A.I. Detection software on students’ college application essays for 2023-2024.

Of course, the central problem with Student #1’s essay is that it includes so little about him. It mentions no accomplishments, doesn’t explain how he developed his interests or pursued them in high school, and remains incredibly vague about his goals at Penn. At best, this essay is a wasted opportunity, and it would probably direct his application to the rejection pile.

Meanwhile, Student #2 takes a different approach with the ChatGPT essay. Rather than using ChatGPT as a writing template, he searches for ideas. For example, noticing that the essay ends paragraph one by focusing on what biochemistry and French have in common, Student #2 decides to include his own ideas on what connects the two subjects. Determined not to use the phrase “critical thinking, problem-solving, and an appreciation for the complexity of the natural world,” he gets to work on brainstorming. Similarly, Student #2 observes the essay’s mention of two biochemistry research facilities at Penn (Perelman School of Medicine and the Penn Center for Innovation) and decides to dig deeper–not only name-dropping Penn’s biochemistry research facilities but discovering which ones he could study or work in as an undergraduate.

Student #2’s approach isn’t risk-free. In searching ChatGPT for ideas about what to write, there is always the danger that ChatGPT’s essays will seem superior to your own. But if you properly value your own writing and understand how weak the ChatGPT essays actually are, Student #2’s approach could be a way of searching for ideas, considering different versions of your essay, and determining how not to write.

The College Essay: Changing Expectations

Since the majority of colleges instituted a SAT/ACT test-optional policy in 2021, the college essay has become even more integral to a student’s application. Now, with the rise of ChatGPT, college essays will receive greater scrutiny than ever. So, for high school students applying to college, the key question is “How do you avoid sounding like ChatGPT?”

Obviously, the best way to avoid sounding like ChatGPT is to write your college essays without its help. Doing so not only ensures that your essays are authentic but actually enhances their content with your real beliefs, experiences, accomplishments, etc.

But even if you aren’t using ChatGPT directly, you may be influenced by its distinctive style of writing. As seen in the example of the Penn supplemental essay above, ChatGPT excels at bland summarizing, speaking at least one level of remove from real experience. From the college essay prompts that I have tested ChatGPT on, its default style seems to be heavy on abstractions and well-worn phrases, with almost no sensory detail. For some student writers, detaching from their own experience and summing it up in an abstract word or phrase is incredibly difficult–and can make ChatGPT appear, by comparison, more knowledgeable and sophisticated. However, the lack of concrete detail is a real weakness of ChatGPT’s writing style, especially for the college essay, which must always prove that its values, reflections, and ideas are earned by experience.

If you have questions about the college essay, contact us at Write Start Prep for a free consultation. We can help you to find your writing style, to plan your essays, and to decide which of your strengths to highlight. As an English Ph.D. with more than a decade of experience in teaching writing, Dr. Kevin Cooney guides students at any stage of the writing process.